Posts Tagged ‘May 25’

The Edward Bulwer-Lytton Anti-Defamation League

Posted in General, On This Day on May 25th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

May 25, 1803: The Author Begins His Story

Today is the  birthday of the unfortunate Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873). It is fashionable to ridicule him as the worst writer in the history of English. In fact, the novelist and playwright was quite popular in his day.  The young aristocrat may have started as a literary dilettante, dabbling in poetry at Cambridge; but after being disinherited by his family for marrying someone Irish, he had to earn a living.  If his writings were half so romantic as his life, no wonder he was a success.  His acclaim was international.  The young and impoverished Richard Wagner, looking for a story with box opera appeal, adapted Bulwer-Lytton’s novel “Rienzi” into an opera.  (And no doubt he never paid the British novelist a pfenning.) 

With his bloodline, wealth and popularity, Bulwer-Lytton won a seat in Parliament and rose up to the middle ranks of Tory leadership.  He would serve in the cabinet and eventually become a baronet.  (There was another novelist among the young Conservatives, less wealthy and with a far more exotic bloodline, but Mr. Disraeli would also achieve some fame.) 

And there is no reason to think that Bulwer-Lytton wouldn’t have been a best-selling author today.  Consider how many times his novel “The Last Days of Pompeii” has been made into a movie.  His great-great grandson, the Fifth Earl of Lytton, thanks us all for the residuals.  Yet, Edward Bulwer-Lytton now is a figure of ridicule.  One of his passages is cited as an exemplar of horrible writing.  Here it is:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I don’t think that it is terrible at all. Yes, it is florid and overwrought: in other words, typically Victorian.

The greatest of the Victorian writers Charles Dickens would have been just as lavish with adjectives. And his opening scene would have included a colorful lamplighter who would reappear throughout the story, at the most incredible times, with remarkable revelations for the hero. “Many the year ago, before I become a magistrate, I was a lamplighter. One day, while making me rounds, I discovered a foundling. How wert I to know it was me long-lost sister’s child? Which makes you my nephew and ‘eir.”

I really don’t understand why Bulwer-Lytton has become the object of such derision. Perhaps he should have given Mt. Vesuvius an endearing cockney accent.